WOMEN AND MEN : 'we call it separation row'

In the Irish Republic 'Till death us do part' means just that. Five days before the vote on divorce, Suzanne Glass meets the unhappy couples left in limbo
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separation Row. That's what we call it," says Anne. "Look," she says pointing at a succession of houses on a council estate just outside Dublin. "She's separated because her husband's on the bottle, and she's separated because her husband ran off with another woman, and he's separated, and he's living with that one's wife and none of them can get a divorce."

To divorce or not to divorce, that is the question to be put to the people of the Republic of Ireland in a referendum on Thursday.

''You put your hand on the Bible and you swear in the presence of the Almighty to stay together for better or for worse, and you have to stick by that, whatever happens, even if your partner beats you,'' says the porter in a Dublin hotel. Questions about the permanence of marriage preoccupy many societies: in Britain, the debate is about whether "fault" should play a role in divorce cases; in Orthodox Judaism, women are protesting because divorce is refused even if their husbands have deserted them. So what happens in a society where there is no divorce, where your wedding ring is superglued to your finger and neither the Church nor the constitution will let you take it off?

"He started beating me when I was four months pregnant," says Maureen. "He didn't want to let me out of the house in case another man looked at me. One night in the pub, someone said to my husband, 'Where's your woman?' He pointed at me and the guy said. 'I wouldn't let a woman like that out of my sight.' I got a lashing that night just because he had made my husband jealous. He hit me for any excuse: lending a friend my coat, leaving the house without him, even though I was just taking the baby for his injections. He was a good Catholic, though. He always went to Mass."

Maureen was beaten regularly for years. Her husband called her a whore. The social services money given to the family fed his gambling , not his children. But still she stayed. "The social stigma of leaving was too great. A woman in Ireland, with four children and no man is frowned upon. Anyway I knew I couldn't get a divorce."

She finally separated three years ago, but in the eyes of the law and of her neighbours, she's still the wife of the man who beat her senseless.

But Maureen's name is tied to her husband's and if she doesn't want to find herself on the street with her four children, she has to pay his arrears. Now that the barring order has elapsed, her husband could legally walk through her door at any moment. Worst of all, though, is that, because she can't divorce, she still feels bound to him. As another separated woman put it: ''It's like having a death in the family and no body to bury."

Neither married nor divorced, Maureen is far from alone in limbo. Anne, the woman who named her street Separation Row, is desperate for the Bill to legalise divorce to succeed. That might just enable her to feel that her life is her own and not subject to a constitution that dictates: "No law shall be enacted providing for the grant of a dissolution of marriage."

"Mental cruelty, that's why my first marriage failed," says Anne. ''I met my husband in London. He was Iranian. He was impressed by the fact that I was Irish. Now I realise it's because he saw Irish women as subservient. We went to live in Turkey and from the moment we touched Muslim soil we started down a slippery slope."

Her mouth was to be kept firmly shut in company, her front door was firmly locked by her husband from the outside when she was home alone. She was there purely to serve his needs. "I won't tell you how I managed to take my son and run away and leave him," she says. "Suffice to say we made it home. As my plane was about to land in Ireland I overheard someone say: 'Turn your clocks back 50 years.' I knew exactly what they meant."

On Anne's mantelpiece is a photograph of her second wedding two years ago. How can she be married again, if she's not divorced? Anne explains her predicament: she married and divorced in Britain. Foreign divorce, like foreign abortion, is the only solution for Irish women. Just cross the border in Northern Ireland , and you can get a divorce. But back on Republic soil, the divorce is more often than not invalid.

"I was trying to make ends meet as a single mother. I took in some lodgers and my new husband was one of them. We fell in love." Anne obtained a "letter of freedom" from her local priest. As far as he was concerned, Anne had never actually tied the knot, because she had married in a register office, not in a Catholic church.

"So I bought the dress and sent out the invitations and the night before the wedding I said to the Priest: 'Father, do I sign the register in my maiden name or in my married name?' He stuttered and stammered and went red and said: 'Anne you can't sign the register at all. The Irish state will not recognise your divorce.' I felt like I'd been hit over the head with a wet fish."

The right to remarry is a significant element of the divorce issue. "Do you think your daughter has the right to a second chance?" asks the logo on the pro-divorce campaigners' posters plastered all over town. But what of a first chance?

''Take Tracy," says Anne. ''She's had six kids by her fella and she can't tie the knot. Let's go and find her." And Anne rings on Tracy's doorbell and invites her round to tell her story.

"You see, he, my man, he can't get a divorce from his first wife even though he's been with me for years. and my kids suffer 'cos they get people calling out 'Bastard'. That's the way people think here and I'm embarrassed when I've got a swollen belly and no ring on my finger."

The anti-divorce campaigners insist that divorce ruins lives. Tim Spalding has been separated since just before the last referendum failed in 1986. He has a new girlfriend, and last week an irate woman called him up and yelled: "You're a sinner. Can't you see you're trying to destroy family life?" Tim's answer? ''Can't they see that without divorce we can't get on with our family lives?"

"Yes," says Father Hermann of Saint Theresa's church in Dublin, he can see that and, presented with the case of a woman beaten by her husband, he wouldn't want me to think the Catholic church was without compassion, but as far as he's concerned she can never divorce and never remarry. ''Sadly she has no option but to focus on her children for the rest of her life." For the government to interfere and introduce divorce, he says, would be like the Pope trying to reduce the speed limit on motorways.

If the "No" votes win this week, thousands of unhappy couples will be held hostage in matrimony. And Maureen will stay bound to the man who bashed her about, cracked her ribs and blacked her eyes.

8 The names of 'Separation Row' residents have been changed

8 Additional research by Jeffrey Lewis